protesters walk down a street holding a large banner that reads "ceasefire now!" many are carrying palestinian flags.
Protesters call for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in downtown San Francisco, Oct. 28, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

Second largest teachers union calls for ‘bilateral cease-fire’ in Israel-Hamas war

This story was originally published in the Forward. Click here to get the Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox.

The executive committee of the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers union in the country, unanimously approved a resolution Monday calling for a “negotiated bilateral cease-fire” agreed to by both sides in the Israel-Hamas War.

“Every day, we see the tremendous pain that Palestinians and Israelis are experiencing,” Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.7 million-member AFT, said in a statement. “Many of our members are deeply connected to people in Israel and the Palestinian territories, so they feel that pain personally.”

The statement falls short of a call for an immediate cease-fire, advocated by some local chapters of the union, but stands in contrast to AFT’s statement two days after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, which whole-heartedly endorsed the Israeli response. “Israel has every right to defend itself as it will now do,” read the statement, which also expressed concern for Palestinians “caught in the crossfire.”

In the four months since, the death toll in Gaza has mounted to more than 26,000, according to Gaza’s health ministry. The union’s statement on the war Monday begins: “The war in Gaza must end.”

AFT’s  more recent statement also calls for immediate relief for Gazans, and a path toward peace founded on a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict. It also condemns Hamas, the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanayahu, antisemitism and Islamophobia.

Eroding support for Israel

Traditionally supportive of Israel, labor’s stance has shifted some in recent years, along with American public opinion in general. The United Auto Workers, for example, in December came out in favor of an immediate cease-fire. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel’s campaign will continue until it has rooted out Hamas, the terror group that killed 1,200 and kidnapped 240 in Israel on Oct. 7.

While the largest teachers union, the National Education Association, has not issued a statement calling for a cease-fire, its president,  Becky Pringle, wrote last month on X, formerly known as Twitter, that “the need for a ceasefire is growing.”

Several local chapters of the AFT had criticized AFT’s original statement, and issued on their own in support of Palestinians along with harsh criticism of Israel.

At Kansas University, for example, graduate teaching assistants lambasted “the ongoing settler colonial project, known as the nation-state of Israel.” And educators at San Jose City College and Evergreen Valley College, both in California, wrote an open letter to AFT leadership, expressing outrage that “the voice of our union is used to condemn the war crimes of Hamas while ignoring the war crimes of the government of Israel.” 

Daniel Allen, an adjunct faculty member of history at Evergreen Valley College and the lead writer of one of the letters critical of the AFT, said he felt morally obligated to speak out after what he saw as an one-sided initial AFT response. 

“I felt like it was our duty to come out publicly,” Allen said. “And as a union member, I felt like I had a right to tell my union leadership how we felt.”

Jeff Schurke, a professor at Empire State, a branch of the State University of New York, who specializes in U.S. labor and foreign policy, said it’s now not unusual to see union leaders more supportive of Israel than their members. “Historically, there’s been a lot of support at the rank-and-file level,” he said. “But over the last 25 to 30 years, little by little, it’s been more contested.”

Weingarten, in an interview, said she has watched support for Israel erode within the AFT’s ranks during her 15-year tenure as president.

“And I put that blame right at Netanyahu’s doorstep,” she said. His “hawkish behavior has not served Israel well in the court of public opinion.”

Netanyahu has maintained that his policies have helped protect Israel from terrorism.

This article was originally published on the Forward.

Adam Janos

Forward contributor